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Collecting Basics

By Will Heath, USA
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Collecting From The Wild

All those who collect plants for bonsai should observe the ethical considerations of collecting because the manner in which we collect affects the perception of collectors worldwide. Unethical collecting can give a bad name to bonsaists everywhere and can make it very difficult for others to acquire permission to collect in the future. The following are some considerations that I personally abide by.

Over the years I have refined the tools I take down to the base minimum and as I sometimes have to walk a ways to where I will be collecting, this helps lighten my load and save my back. The following is a list of tools and supplies I carry in my backpack when collecting in the wild.

I do most of my collecting up north on a few acres that I own and on a few more acres that friends own. I also have obtained permission from a few locals. I spend many hours walking these areas and I have examined many trees, marked a few in my GPS for future consideration, and collected a few. Depending on the species and age of the tree I use different methods for collecting with a high ratio of success.

The Three-Year Plan

Most of the bigger and older Jack Pines and other species that I have marked in my GPS are on what I call a three-year plan. The first spring after I find the tree I dig a two-foot trench just outside of the drip line, half way around the tree. I use my saw to severe any roots that I encounter and also to lightly prune the tree to remove any branches that will not be needed or to start to encourage back budding. I fill the hole in being sure to mix in some fertilizer and chopped sphagnum moss. I use the granular type fertilizer for this and find that the tree will seldom put roots out pass this enhanced feed area. The sphagnum moss greatly helps with new root development where I cut the roots.

The second spring I repeat the process except I dig my trench on the other half of the circle. By now the roots are well on their way to recovery on the other side and are now closer to the trunk. I once again mix fertilizer and chopped sphagnum moss in when I fill the hole.

The third spring I trench all the way round the tree and reach under to severe the taproot, if present. I then tilt the tree one-way and slide burlap under one side. I tilt the tree the other way and pull the burlap through, completely wrapping the root ball. I tie it off with twine being sure to wrap the twine around the root ball also and then lift the whole root ball out of the hole by lifting the burlap, not the trunk. A word of caution here; do not lift or move the tree by the trunk. Doing so will damage the bark and loosen or tear the roots.

Collecting On The Spot

For trees that are not as old or for trips where for reasons the tree must be collected when variations of the above three-year plan can be used. I have collected older trees in two years or less by making one trench in spring and the other in the fall of the same year and collecting the following spring.

Collecting on the spot requires that you get as much as the root ball as possible to assure survival. The soil conditions in the spot you collect will dictate if spot collecting can be done. Some places you will find create naturally tight root balls close to the trunk, others the roots may go on for yards with no feeder roots close to the trunk. The latter trees should be left alone; they are not collectable on the spot and would require a longer plan such as the three-year plan outlined above.

When you must collect a tree on the spot great care must be taken to retain as much of the root ball as possible. In the attached diagram I show the best way to dig a tree out in this situation. Trenching completely around the tree and then undercutting the root ball is a far better way than to angle the shovel in and pry. In this way the root ball is less disturbed and the trees chances of survival is much greater. Waiting until after a good rainfall will help to assure that a good soil mass will be lifted with the root ball or wetting the root ball prior to digging will help the soil to remain in place. See the diagram below to better understand this digging method.

Diagram of the digging methods

It is always a good idea to be prepared to collect other items while you are out. I have found some very nice stones and driftwood while out, save room for these in your pack. One item I always collect whenever I am out is Sphagnum Moss. I not only use this for air layering but I also use it in my soil mix for freshly collected trees and as I have mentioned above, I use it to back-fill my trenches when I am spading a tree for future collection. The pictures below are of Sphagnum Moss growing in the wild and a mesh laundry bag which I find is perfect for collecting it.

Sphagnum Moss growing in the wild

A mesh laundry bag full of Sphagnum Moss

After Care

Once you have collected the tree or trees you wanted be sure to keep the root ball damp, never allow it to dry out. Since I make it a habit to collect sphagnum moss while I am collecting trees, I usually pack the root ball with moss first and then wrap with plastic or burlap. I use my judgment, depending on the overall health of the tree and the root mass to determine if it will go into a training pot, growing box, or straight into the growing bed. I never style a collected tree until one or two full seasons has passed and the tree shows significant signs of healthy growth. I will however prune back to encourage back budding if the health of the tree will allow it.


So you collected that beautiful tree you found and to your great dismay, the roots are not quite what you expected. For trees where the root mass is small and there are few feeder roots I treat them almost like an air-layer. I securely tied the tree into a growing box with a soil mixture of 75% sphagnum moss and 25% of free draining soil mix. I have had great success with this method once I realized that I do the same thing to "create" roots from nothing on air-layers. I use this technique only in early spring as it seems to work best then and it allows enough roots to form to allow me to transplant before the seasons end. This technique has also served me well in the past with trees that suffered from rot.

Micro Environments

Before you collected that tree it was living in a relationship with other plants and fungus. These relationships can be major like the Mycorrhizae in the root system or minor like living in the shade cast by a larger nearby tree or playing host to the moss and lichen growing on its trunk.

These relationships are called Micro Environments and are created by the plants that are growing around the trunk and on top of the root ball. These plants have shaded the root ball, collected dew, held in moisture, supplied nutrients, and hosted a vast collection of micro organisms every since the tree was a seedling. The plants roots are intermingled with the roots of the tree, at times sharing the same water, nutrients and beneficial Mycorrhizae with the very tree you are collecting.

Removing the tree from its environment is stressful enough without also ripping out these plants that form the Micro Environment that the tree is used to. Removing the plants that make up this Micro Environment will also unnecessarily disturb the fine upper most roots of the tree. When I collect I take great care to collect the whole root ball including all the plants that are growing on it. I am very careful to leave all the plants except obvious weeds untouched as they can be removed gradually as the tree strengthens and totally removed at the next repotting once the tree has become accustomed to its new environment.

In Colin Lewis's book "The Art of Bonsai Design" on page 115 in a side article about collecting wild pines he states, "Take as substantial a root ball as possible and wrap it very tightly in plastic sheeting and packing tape. Retain the flora growing in the root ball (apart from dandelions and other obvious weeds). This flora forms part of a ecosystem that the pine also plays a role in. They may share mycorrhiza, or some may influence the nature of the nutrient or trace element content of the local soil."

He then goes on to say, "Subterranean organisms certainly do have a significant effect on the ability of plants to survive stress such as transplanting. These organisms, in turn, can depend on the local plants for their success. In simple terms, don't break the cycle until the pine is accustomed to living on its own new root system."

The pictures below are of a Jack Pine I collected recently. The first two pictures are of the intact root ball as collected; the third picture is of the root ball after I have taken a chopstick to the edges and underside. I use a wooden chopstick to loosen the soil around the edges and bottom, exposing only the slightest amount of roots. The top is left completely untouched. The only roots I remove are thick ones that protrude beyond the confines of the box it will be planted in and these only if I cannot bend them to fit. Sometimes it is feasible to wire a big root to another, bending it inwards so it fits. Cutting off a root on a freshly collected tree should only be done as a last resort. Notice that the plants on top of the root ball have been left and all the original soil is intact. Deciduous trees may be bare rooted if necessary, but this should never be done with conifers or pines.

Jack Pine root ball intact after collection showing micro environment.

Jack Pine root ball intact after collection showing micro environment.

Jack Pine root ball after loosening soil around edges and bottom, micro environment still intact.

Upon potting the collected tree into a training box I set the intact root ball onto a shallow layer of soil and then work a mix of soil and sphagnum moss around all sides, then I slightly cover all the surface plants with a thin layer of soil as I have found that they respond much better this way and will grow up through the soil in a couple of weeks. The pictures below are of the completed potted tree in a training box with the surface plants covered mostly with a soil mix consisting of 70% lava rock, 10% turface, and 20% fir bark.

Collected jack Pine in growing/training box.

Although the tree form may suggest a young age, the trunk bark says otherwise.

Let A Tree Be A Tree

It has been mentioned in many articles that one should cut back foliage after collecting in order to "balance" the foliage to the recently cut root mass. I believe that there is absolutely no way that we can guess the amount, if any, to cut back to achieve this balance.

While it is true that trees have an inbuilt need for balance and that they will go to great lengths to achieve it, I have found that some of the current practices are detrimental to the survival and development of the tree.

You see when we slightly cut back the roots on a collected tree we create an unbalance in the tree that the tree is genetically programmed to over come. The excess foliage (in comparison to the freshly trimmed root mass) causes a water loss in the tree by the water diffusing out of the stomata as carbon dioxide diffuses in for photosynthesis and that the smaller root mass can not supply.

The solution to this problem is not cutting back the foliage because we can never know how much. Too little and you still have an unbalanced system, too much and you now have another completely different unbalance in the tree. Instead the solution is to let the tree be a tree. The tree will respond to a light trimming of the roots and the resulting unbalance by creating more roots! Yes, exactly what we want and all we have to do is leave it alone. When there are too many leaves on a tree and not enough roots, water stress will increase, leaf growth will stop and root growth will continue until balance is once again achieved.

A tree has built in feedback controls hardwired between the foliage and the roots designed so that the tree stays in balance. We see examples of this all the time; in fact often we use it to our advantage, I wonder why we so often go against what we see with our own eyes?

In Bonsai Today issue 75 on page 48 Walter Pall states in part two of his "Collecting Trees From The Wild" article, "Trying to balance the crown and the roots of a tree, as is often recommended, makes no sense. The tree itself knows much better what to do. Even Japanese collectors have had the same experience. After digging up a juniper, they leave the branches and needles intact. A year later, they can prune away long branches."

Below are some pictures of a Jack Pine that I discovered and collected. You can see from the pictures that none of the foliage has been cut back at all. I will not cut any back until very early spring. At this point I will be using the trees natural balance again but in reverse for another reason. Once the roots have balanced themselves with the foliage, I will then cut back the foliage. The tree will once again respond to keep balance but this time it will be trying to balance the pruned foliage with the roots, forcing out new growth on branches and also new buds on old wood. This technique has allowed me to successfully obtain back budding on older pines.

Jack Pine just missed by a clearing project.

Trenched and ready to lift.

Responding well in its new environment.

Against Doctors Orders

Imagine going to the doctor for a illness and learning that he recommends no medicine, no food, no vitamins, and warns against anything life giving at all. You and I would automatically label this doctor a quack and seek a second opinion, yet we take the same advice regarding our freshly collected bonsai to heart.

It has often been said that you should place a freshly collected tree in the shade and withhold fertilizer for some time. I personally do not subscribe to this school of thought. I cannot see withholding life giving sun or nutrients from a tree that is in great need of repair.

A tree is a very complex organism with many built in controls as I have mentioned above. Trees have evolved to deal with injuries in many ways, none of which includes changing location to a shady, sterile spot until it heals.

When a tree is injured it goes into a repair mode where cells are produced to start healing wounds and to increase growth in order to replace the missing foliage and/or roots. The tree will once again seek to balance itself and by doing so will require energy in the form of sunlight and nutrients. By withholding either, we force the tree to tap reserves that are best left for uncontrollable events.

I have placed freshly collected pines in direct sunlight and started feeding from the minute they are potted. In fact if you count the weakened fish emulsion solution that I often spray on the roots to prevent drying out, I actually start feeding before the tree is actually potted. To date I have had no ill effects and the trees seem to respond better than the others I tried using the "starve in darkness" method.

Collecting From A Nursery

There are many reasons one may decide to purchase quality stock from a local nursery or 'box' store instead of a bonsai store. I do it because I have found some very nice stock at fantastic prices that have not been previously sorted through by bonsaists. Other reasons include shopping on a budget, no local bonsai stores, convenience, and fun.

I admit that I am a stock addict and recently had to expand my growing beds to make up for all the deals I have found. Over time I have learned a few things about looking for stock at these places and I thought I'd share them here with you.

Sure the staff will think you're nuts, I love that, in fact I encourage that perception, that way they leave me alone, in time they will laugh with you!

In the pictures below is a Mugho Pine (Pinus mugo) that looks like any ordinary nursery stock on the surface. Only by digging deep with my fingers did I discover the hidden treasure below. Once home, I removed some of the nursery pot rim and the upper surface of soil, amazing what lies hidden sometimes.

I once fell in love with a very thick trunked Jade that was part of a very expensive group, I spent time with the counter girl, laughing and trying to sell her a car. She ended up calling me later that week to tell me that those jades were now 50% off! A short while after I bought those jades, I dropped of a bottle of wine to her; I know about every sale they have now!

A manager at a local box store calls me now whenever they have a new shipment in and recently has started setting aside the "thick ones" for me. She even asks if there's any species that I would like to see ordered!

Just be friendly and ask: most people love to feel important and are dying to be appreciated. Asking is the key here, explain what you do and answer questions, and then ask if you could be notified when new stock comes in.

A little grease never hurts either. I gave some extra Auto Show tickets to the man at a box store here and he has never failed to walk me to what he thinks are the best deals whenever I come in, he's not always right but he has surprised me from time to time.

Most still think I'm a little nuts, but we have fun and I fully plan on dropping off a little bonsai to each soon.

Be an out-of-season buyer, look for the end of season sales, late fall or winter here is sometimes the best time to buy as the stores are looking to empty out the nursery for the winter. This is a great time to find deals but the selection usually is low and picked though. Knowing the staff sometimes helps with getting forewarning on a sale, see above.

Save that trash! Nurseries will often toss things that start to look wilted or mark them down considerably. I never fail to make a trip past the dumpster on my way into the store, it's amazing how many trees and plants are tossed that simply need a little TLC. Knowing the staff will get this stuff set aside for you, see above.

Don't be afraid to walk! Never settle for less. Or feel you have to buy something because you spent so much time there. Who cares if you just molested every root system in the place? Have standards, and stick to them. On the other hand if you see something you like, buy it now! Waiting will only ensure that it ends up in someone's fence garden. Never, ever ask the staff to hold something for you; this only inconveniences them and most likely is asking them to break policies.

This last weekend I had the ultimate honor of accompanying Vance Wood on a trip to a nursery here in Michigan. To say Vance is experienced at nursery crawling is an understatement; most of what I know about nursery collecting I learned from posts made by Vance on an internet forum, long before I met him in person.

After arriving late because I was looking for his street off of the wrong road, Vance and I headed out to the nursery where we found some great deals and I got to watch this man evaluate Mughos and other species first hand. The most valuable lesson I learned from Vance is to forget the foliage, in fact he doesn't even consider it when selecting a tree. Foliage can be trained, shaped, removed, and replaced, it's the trunk and roots that make or break stock.

In nurseries the problem is that the trunks and roots are often buried under dirt, needles and other debris and if you want to see what's under there you have to "see" with your fingers. This is not a sport for the neat freaks, you will get dirty and you'll spend hours removing the dirt from under your nails. On the plus side, you'll find some great deals and some excellent stock.

The pictures below show just how difficult it is to see what lies beneath the surface with nursery stock. Digging your hands in deep and feeling the buried roots and trunk takes perseverance and determination and it also takes the willingness to get a little dirty. Later we will see just what this accomplishes in stock selection.

Vance and I went though many Mughos that day and passed on 80% of them judging by what we could feel alone.

Just removing the debris isn't enough.

Typical nursery stock soil surface.

You must really push your fingers down into the soil to feel the roots and trunk.

Sometimes your whole hand can easily fit into the pot, depending on the root mass and how much soil was added by the grower or nursery.

Although effective, this is not a technique for clean freaks.

Here is one of the two mughos I picked up.

These will not be transplanted until next year but I always take a few steps to get them ready.

I cut down the nursery pot, exposing the hidden trunk and roots, but I leave the few roots that will be nebari slightly buried. I then remove just enough unwanted branches to allow sunlight to penetrate the interior. This helps the existing inner buds to grow, I'll need these when I style in the future.

Below are pictures of these steps and a couple pictures of the nice stock that was buried. Vance Wood's "Seeing eye hands" method is truly worth its weight in gold.

Mugo Pine fresh from a nursery trip.

Cutting off the lip of the nursery container down to future nebari level.

Lip removed exposing trunk.

Excess soil and surface roots removed.

Beautiful trunk that was buried in the nursery pot. Trunks like these are often overlooked by shoppers.

Using these methods I also picked up a couple nice Junipers as well as shown below. All of this stock would have been overlooked or passed on by the bonsaist who only concentrates on branching or what is above the soil line. The two Mugos and the two junipers were purchased for under $20.00, that's all four pieces for less than twenty dollars. I spent just under 50.00 that day for a total of nine pieces of excellent stock.

Scraggily looking Juniper at casual inspection.

Upon digging in, I found it had an amazingly thick and weathered trunk buried under the soil line.

A close up of the buried trunk.

Another ordinary looking landscape quality juniper.

Revealed a interesting trunk buried below the soil.

One Yew (Taxus sp.), two Mughos (Pinus mugo), four Junipers (Juniperus sp.), and a better understanding of the fine art of nursery collecting...all for a price you wouldn't believe anyhow.

Vance was an excellent instructor and showed me things I couldn't have learned without hands on experience. We were two smiling lunatics with a truck jammed full of trees on the way home. The bed and the back seat was full of trees, we couldn't have taken another tree home if they were free.

Collecting From Urban Environments

I pass a lot of homes both in the city and up north that have overgrown landscaping and I have found that the simple act of asking a homeowner if they would like those old over grown shrubs removed free of charge usually results in permission happily given. Sometimes I will throw in the offer of replacing the old shrubs with new, fresh, young ones, an offer not refused often.

There are literally millions of old over grown shrubs out there. Junipers, Yews, Boxwoods, Rose of Sharon's, holly, etc. just waiting to be discarded or used. I am sure that most of you have seen shrubs that were fantastic but never stopped to ask, this is an incredible source of developed bonsai stock that should be taken advantage of before they end up in pieces on the curb side.

The key to obtaining permission is to be polite and offer a needed service. If you are refused, thank them kindly and leave your number in case they ever decide to make a change. Trust me; they will call you back if you made a good impression.

Once permission is given, remember that they will refer you if you do a good job. Always backfill the hole, I carry some grass seed so I can seed the area as well. Never drive on the grass and always leave the area looking better than it did before you came.

There is a member of our club that actually advertises this service and charges very little if anything to remove old shrubs and trees. He has acquired some of the best stock you can imagine while performing a valuable service, saving trees that otherwise would have been discarded, and promoting a service that gives all bonsaists a good name.

Will Heath is an editor and co-founder of the Art of Bonsai project, the Knowledge of Bonsai forums, and the show chairman of the Four Seasons Bonsai Club of Michigan. His energy, devotion to promoting bonsai as an art form, prolific writing ability, and stubborn refusal to compromise his beliefs is well known to all. His educational articles and humorous stories have been published in Bonsai Today, the ABS Journal, on the web, and in newsletters around the world.

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